Representation by Those Affected by the Criminal Legal System Is Increasingly Important

Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, lost her bid for City Council, but she is one of many bringing personal experience with the criminal system to politics

Sarah Lustbader

This article was published as part of the April 3 Daily Appeal.

Yesterday, Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, lost her bid to represent Ferguson’s Third Ward on its City Council. McSpadden (who also goes by Lezley) is the mother of Michael Brown, the unarmed Black 18-year-old whose shooting death by a white Ferguson police officer––who was not indicted––helped propel the Black Lives Matter movement. As a member of the council, she would have had the chance to push for institutional change in the city and oversee the same police force whose officer shot her son. “Almost four years ago to this day, I ran down this very street, and my son was covered in a sheet,” McSpadden said during a press conference last year. She said that one of her top objectives for the city was to improve police accountability and reform. McSpadden also called for improved community mental health resources, and better after-school programs for local children. [P.R. Lockhart / Vox]

Lesley McSpadden in 2014 (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“I don’t want my children to grow up in a city where what happened to Michael can happen to anyone else,” she wrote in The Root. “We need to rebuild the entire system from the inside out. The only way that can be done is by having people, like me, who have been harmed by the system working inside it to make the right change that is needed.” [Lezley McSpadden / The Root]

Even though McSpadden lost her race, Ferguson’s City Council looks drastically different from the way it did five years ago, when her son was killed. The majority-Black city was, in 2014, governed mostly by whites. The mayor was white, as was the police chief, and 94 percent of the police force. Only one of its six City Council members was Black. “These facts, as much as anything, have shaped the protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown,” wrote Jordan Weissmann for Slate. “Ferguson, with a 67 percent Black population, is a place where the largest community has little political voice.” A local political science professor attributed that to low turnout at the polls among Black residents. [Jordan Weissmann / Slate] But the following year, a “surge in voter turnout helped elect two new Black city council members in Ferguson.” After months of street protests, the turnout for the following election was 30 percent, more than double recent municipal elections.” Until then, Ferguson had had only two African American council members in its 120-year history. [Carey Gillam / Reuters]

Representation by those directly affected by the criminal legal system and police misconduct has become increasingly important as candidates for all sorts of political posts––district attorney, mayor, city councilmember, and president––seek to convince voters that they are worthy of being called “progressive.” Some simply say the word “progressive,” without much in the way of policy proposals to back it up. Others make it a central issue of their campaign but later retreat in seemingly cynical political moves. New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, fits the latter description. Last summer, after ending solitary confinement in the city’s jails, he defended the Department of Correction, which was skirting the rule by shipping prisoners upstate, where they were put in solitary. De Blasio said the actions were rare and necessary for safety. “He’s done nothing to fix the broken N.Y.P.D. disciplinary process,” said Carolyn Martinez-Class, a police reform advocate, adding that he had “taken the city back decades on police transparency.” [J. David Goodman and William Neuman / New York Times]

When the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation announced plans for a “Mass Bail Out Action” for women and teenagers last fall, de Blasio said the foundation’s “intention is noble but they should focus on low level and non-violent offenders only.” This was unacceptable to criminal justice reform advocate Akeem Browder, the brother of Kalief Browder, whose death by suicide after spending three years on Rikers Island for a crime he did not commit became a rallying cry for reformers. “I am incredibly disappointed with Mayor de Blasio,” said Browder. “He travels the country talking about building a true progressive platform, but shies away from true progressive action right in his own backyard.” [Jeff Coltin / City and State NY]

Akeem Browder decided to challenge de Blasio and run for mayor last year on the Green Party ticket. His contact with the criminal legal system, something he discussed openly, was not limited to his brother’s ordeal. Twenty years ago, when he was 15, Browder was arrested after his girlfriend’s mother caught them having oral sex. “It was like kidnapping, rape, forcible touching, sodomy, a bunch of stuff,” he said. “They threw the book at me.” He ended up pleading guilty, and having to register as a Level Three sex offender. He later spent a year and a half in prison after pleading guilty to burglary and identity theft charges in 2006. [Danny Lewis / WNYC]

Browder lost his race, but he had various qualities voters might seek if they care about criminal justice issues: He knew how stigmatizing a criminal record can be, especially with the label “sex offender”; he knew what it’s like to do time; and he knew the impact such contacts can have on a person’s family. Browder also helped destigmatize all of these issues by speaking of them openly during his campaign.

Although Browder, McSpadden, and others have not been successful, their presence in the field has helped promote the importance of perspective among elected officials. When those in charge of making the rules have never been vulnerable to the legal system, or seen a child or parent through the process, their promises mean less. The urgency in their rhetoric is simply less believable.

And besides, some such candidates win. McSpadden is a member of Mothers of the Movement—a group of Black women who have lost children to the police and to racism-fueled vigilante violence. She is the second woman in the group to run for political office; in 2018, Lucy McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was shot and killed in 2012, won a congressional election in Georgia. [P.R. Lockhart / Vox] “I lost my son Jordan, but I am still his mother,” McBath said in a campaign video. “We thought maybe he would be a community activist. What I thought I saw in him is what I’ve become.” She added, “I can speak truth in Washington.